TA Top Five: Period Pieces

By Mark Delaney, 2 years ago
Sometimes video games take players to fully realized fantasy realms of dark sorcery and dragons. Other times they transport us far into the future to dystopian cyberpunk worlds where man and machine have merged to become one. Video games can introduce players to never before seen environments rich with background lore and characters that seem living and breathing. We've seen this in places like Rapture, Thedas, Reach, and Pandora among so many others.

Sometimes, though, video games don't try to envision a fictional world at all. Sometimes they aim to depict a bygone time in human history, and many of those games have done this to great effect. Using famous figures, accurate architecture, and pivotal events, games nearly serve as time machines for gamers who seek the experiences of those who came before them. Here are the best video game-history lesson hybrids.

Honorable Mentions

The Saboteur
 He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a chain smoker. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a chain smoker.

Confession: When I was a little kid, I used to believe the black and white photos my grandmother had came from a time when the world was colorless. I didn't understand it was merely early camera technology that was to blame. I thought the world was black and white. Goofy me, I know, but it isn't so far off from what Pandemic Studios did with their final project, The Saboteur. Exploring Nazi-occupied Paris was a thrill given the game's open-world structure. It was made better by the clever use of color, or rather the lack of it, in heavily occupied areas. Liberating Parisians infused the neighborhoods with life and color they once had. In terms of historical accuracy, the story loses some points for being kind of silly at times, but the city itself and its creative means of portraying oppression make it a worthwhile chapter in your video gaming history books.

Call of Duty: World at War
 A preview of the forthcoming Memories of Stalingrad postcard series. A preview of the forthcoming "Memories of Stalingrad" postcard series.

As one of the last in a long line of shooters to obsess over World War II, World at War held three distinct advantages over its nearly endless predecessors. The first is recency. Coming on just before shooters transitioned to a mostly modern setting (which now extends into the future), WaW was graphically and technically superior to other Xbox offerings from the same time period, allowing Treyarch to showcase more involved setpieces that better served the time period. The second is a focus on the Pacific Theater. Most WWII games covered the European Front. The Soviet upset of German forces at Stalingrad and the allied assault on D-Day have been replayed more times than I can remember, but far fewer games took the battle to the humid jungles of Peleliu and Makin Atoll where Japanese soldiers lurked in the tall grass, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting American soldiers. They weren't the first to cover the Pacific Front, just the best. The last advantage is the most jarring -- its depiction of violence. World at War was exceptionally gory, with soldiers around you losing limbs and piles of lifeless combatants leaking pools of red into the streets of Berlin. Games are often excessively violent, but in WaW the violence wasn't accompanied by any realism-breaking moments, just the macabre truths of war.

Top Five

5. Grand Theft Auto series
Rumors say there exists a world beyond your smartphone.Rumors say there exists a world beyond your smartphone.

You could argue that new GTA games aren't immediately period pieces because they exist in current day settings, but give them a few years and they become snapshots of a specific time and place. Every numbered title in the series since III (and arguably even before that) acts as the unflattering and sometimes hard to swallow truth of modern American culture. In Grand Theft Auto IV, we saw a post-9/11 New York (Liberty City) where xenophobia was worn like a badge of honor and immigrants learned the hard way that the "American Dream" was nothing but a clever marketing campaign. Grand Theft Auto V held in contempt the self- and selfie-obsessed anything-to-get-ahead culture of Los Angeles (Los Santos). In LS, success isn't earned, it's owed. Everyone believes they have a right to live beyond their means, bowl over the competition, and rise to the top, with or without talent or education. Politicians, celebrities, religion -- no one is safe from Rockstar's dirty mirror. We aren't supposed to mention non-achievement enabled titles in these countdowns, but it's also hard to ignore Vice City, which might have finished number one on this countdown if it weren't for those restrictions. Every new game in the GTA series is like an interactive and bitingly accurate story straight out of The Onion.

4. Mafia II
 I've got to get home soon. I have crime to organize! "I've got to get home soon. I have crime to organize!"

Though it didn't top this list, Mafia II is the game that gave me the idea to make it. After a WWII level acts as the tutorial for the game, the protagonist, Vito Scaletta comes home from the war just in time for Christmas. As he exits the cab, the snow falls on Empire Bay and Dean Martin's "Let It Snow" plays in the background. Kids are having snowball fights, you catch up with old neighbors and shop owners -- it feels like the neighborhood existed long before you got home. You head through the alley to find your straight out of Sicily mom and sister waiting for you with their warm embrace and a hot meal. It's one of the most immersive intros on the Xbox 360. If you want to be transported to a world, Mafia II does it. The rest of the game does the excellent intro justice too with period-accurate vehicles, weapons, clothing, and fantastic music.

3. Red Dead Redemption
 No need to stress over gas prices just yet. No need to stress over gas prices just yet.

From here on you could make the case for any of these titles to top the list. RDR was billed as "Grand Theft Horse" by some fans and critics, and in some ways it is that; Take what works in GTA and throw it in an early 1900's western setting. That setting was so well executed, though, that the end result arguably outshines its modern crime drama counterparts. Each settlement or town had its own identity filled with drunken idiots, vulnerable immigrants, and corrupt law enforcement. Blackwater stood out especially as it's there that John Marston first rides in an automobile, which is symbolic of the game's themes of a dying wild west. Revolvers, horseback riding, living as an outlaw -- it was all coming crashing down. Marston saw it all happen firsthand, and in turn so did players. Before RDR, it was widely believed that westerns couldn't work in video games. Rockstar changed that perception and now has fans waiting for news of a sequel.

2. Assassin's Creed series
Hey officer, could you point me in the direction of Fenway?Hey officer, could you point me in the direction of Fenway?

The longest running historical fiction series in video game history is also one of the biggest franchises in the world. Ubisoft lit a spark back in 2007 that has ignited a franchise rivaling the popularity of Halo and Call of Duty. That's due in large part to the series' time-hopping format. Each game takes us to a new moment in human history and reimagines the famously played out battles, assassinations, inventions, and so much else we've read about in textbooks. We've seen colonial United States in the years leading up to the American Revolution. We've seen Renaissance Italy where Da Vinci became one of the world's greatest minds. We've also seen the age of pirates, the Third Crusade, and the beheading-happy era of the French Revolution. The series shows no signs of slowing with this fall's Assassin's Creed Syndicate taking gamers to the dawn of modern industry in London. Each time and place is filled with names and events that will make any history buff grin. Though gameplay and story have disappointed in recent years for some, there's no denying every time we lie down in the Animus, we'll soon be transported to a highly detailed snapshot of world history.

1. L.A. Noire
 Los Angeles, circa 1947 B.S. (Before Smog) Los Angeles, circa 1947 B.S. (Before Smog)

All of these games take some creative license in designing their respective settings, and L.A. Noire is no different in that regard. However, no other studio here also went to the lengths Team Bondi and Rockstar went to when recreating 1947 Los Angeles. Aerial and street level photos were used in the creation of the game so that every street, building placement, and intersection was identical. They also worked to get the wear of certain buildings exactly right too. Not as critically lauded as Rockstar's other works, L.A. Noire still holds the distinction as the most historically accurate game the studio (and arguably any studio) has ever worked on. They also tied real-life events into the game's detective narrative, most famously the unsolved Black Dahlia case, though the game takes license in explaining why it remains unsolved. Like Mafia II, which takes place in an almost identical period, L.A. Noire nailed it with the attire, music, architecture, and weaponry. Team Bondi's farewell gets the nod over the rest here though because on top of everything else it does very well the game's map would work as a real life map if, through some Twilight Zone-esque predicament, you ever find yourself in 1947 Los Angeles.

The TA Team will be bringing you The TA Top Five every Sunday until we run out of coolness to debate and discuss. If you have an idea for a Top Five you'd like us to do, be sure to let us know in the comments!
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.